Sticking to routines. What I wish I knew 10 years ago.

Time and routine

Time and routine

Brian Kwong from DaGeniusLab surveyed his audience on what was holding them back in their language learning. The overwhelming response? Time and Routine.

Wow! Quite a finding.

So the major obstacle in language learning is not the complexity of the language, choosing the right method or finding good learning materials. It’s finding the time to do it and deciding on a routine that works.

So all that time spent browsing YouTube polyglots for the latest tips and advice is not, in fact, what we need.

Instead, all we need to do is……….. get on with it!

Time management

Of course, there’s always an excuse. Why else would Time and Routine have come top of the list?

I know a thing or two about excuses! I’ve come up with some storming ones in the past, and I’ve also experienced how you can start to believe your own excuses if you don’t keep a check on them. But, I have got a lot better, and I’ve learnt a thing or two in the process.

What follows is a personal account of the key lessons I’ve learnt about time and routine. These are the things that have revolutionised my personal approach to language learning, and the strategy that has emerged out of it. It won’t be relevant to everyone, but will hopefully be useful for people who think anything like I do.

How your brain works

How your brain works

Part One – Understanding why you make certain decisions

  1. Recognise how your brain works. You’ve decided to learn a language, and you’re absolutely determined to do it. So, in a show of strength and determination, you want to give yourself a hardcore study schedule of 2-3 hours per day in order to become fluent as quickly as possible. You do this because you’ve got high standards and don’t want to sell yourself short with a paltry 1 hour a day. You do this because you’re scared of failure, and this is called pride.
  2. Recognise the implications of sticking successfully to your routine. If you get it right, and keep it up, the benefits are immense: pride, increased motivation, better self-control, and… improved learning.
  3. Recognise the consequences of not sticking to your routine. If, for whatever reason, your routine gets the better of you, the consequences can be serious: frustration, confusion, beating yourself up, corner cutting… and, ultimately, giving up.
  4. Getting your routine right is more important than what you’re actually doing in it. Look again at points 2 and 3. One is massively empowering, the other devastating. It’s clear what to aim for.
  5. It’s easier to scale up than to scale down.If you start small, it’s easy to scale up, and you’ll feel good about it. If you start big, and it doesn’t work, you’ll find it hard to feel positive about cutting back (sounds like failure, right?).
  6. Not all time is equal. I know that certain times of day, or certain places, carry a high ‘distraction factor’. For example, I’m at high risk of distraction at around 5pm just after I’ve got home, because I’m tired and tempted by any number of things – food, Facebook, TV. By contrast, I can do almost anything early in the morning when there’s no-one around. Recognising the ‘distraction factors’ over the course of your day is vital.

So, to summarise, when putting together your study routine, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by aiming too high. Start modestly, and don’t feel guilty about it. Get this right, and scale up. This way you’ll be able to taste success.

It is true that some people can aim high and keep it up. It’s not that you shouldn’t aim high, just that you may not be reading this if you were one of those rare people for whom time and routine isn’t a difficulty.

A routine that works

A routine that works

Part Two – A sensible routine

What I’ve described above is basically what I wish I knew ten years ago. Not about routine as such, but about myself – how I work and how I think.

Having figured all this out about myself, I’ve been able to develop a decent approach to taking on new projects (could be anything – doesn’t have to be languages) which I can be confident works to my strengths.

Here’s how I’d summarise my approach now:

Don’t delay. Decide on a routine that’s 100% achievable (however small), write it down somewhere and get started. Start with as little as 15 minutes per day, if necessary, and schedule it for a specific time.

In reality, you’ll probably enjoy the process so much that you will do more than your scheduled 15 minutes, so 15 minutes becomes a way to trick your brain into getting started. After 3-4 weeks this will become a habit and you won’t need to try so hard any more.

As you settle into your routine, it’s time to begin to expand. Decide on the times that you’ll study and what you’ll do in each slot – make it achievable above all. Here’s an example from my current Learn Cantonese project:

The key is to make your routine so clear that you do it without thinking (i.e. as soon as I get in the car, a podcast goes on), therefore it’s vital to be clear and specific about your routines right from the start.

I’d say that this mindset alone accounts for well over 50% of my success with languages, if only for the fact that the consequences of getting it wrong are disastrous!

I wish I knew this 10 years ago, but then that would have deprived me of the satisfaction of finally figuring it out now! By all means give it a try and let me know how it goes!

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  • This is very impressive. One of the best articles on the subject I have ever read.

    • Wow! Thanks for the vote of confidence, David! This is a subject I’m passionate about, having struggled with it a lot in the past. Really glad you found it useful.

  • Kieran Maynard

    I read an article yesterday about the “hardest languages” that listed Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean in the top 10 “hardest to learn.” But really, the hardest language to learn is the one you aren’t learning. So I’ll never be fluent in Italian because I haven’t put the slightest effort into it, but I know I will be fluent in Korean soon because I’m learning every day, and I know I will be fluent in Indonesian and Cantonese eventually because I study a little at a time.

    I have two “burning questions”:

    1) How do you handle times when someone is speaking but you don’t understand what they say, or what’s often worse, when you think you understand what they say… but don’t?

    2) How do you learn slang?

    As for my “biggest problem,” I think it’s definitely shyness and embarrassment. How do you deal with this?

    My goals:

    Easy: Pass the JLPT N1 exam in December.

    Moderate: Get a really, really high score on the JLPT 1 rather than just pass. 😉

    Hard: Be fluent enough to have a conversation in Korean with a native speaker by the end of 2013.

    “Impossible”: Pass the highest level of the Korean TOPIK exam in April 2014.

    Daily: Learn some Korean, Spanish, Cantonese, and Indonesian.

    Where I want to go next: Spanish speaking countries for a backpacking trip. Study at a university in Korea.

    Languages I have barely started but want to learn: Arabic (and/or Egyptian Arabic); Brazilian Portuguese; Turkish.

  • eric0109

    Totally agree to Richard’s “trick your brain getting started” approach. It works in everything, I think, from babysitting to politics.

    To apply it extensively, I would like to see that, in the long run, you have to motivate yourself with something you’re really longing for. It differs among people with different personalities. When you know what kind of person you are, you try to link the language you learn to it. For example, if you would like to try something new or are adventurous, you can tell yourself after learning a new language, say Japanese, you can play the original version of many online game in Japanese. You can travel Japan by yourself.

    This thought is a step further than learning a language for enjoyment or the relevant entertainment. It hits your heart deeper. It is also an alternative for someone who learn a language not for self-interest but for work or some boring reasons. As the world is interrelated, it is not hard for anyone to find something great in a language that can be linked to their personalities. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the comment, Eric. Have you used this ‘brain trick’ yourself recently? I’m really curious how you’d use it for babysitting! 🙂

      • eric0109

        Feeding babies sweet food before less sweet one. I just say it by chance.

  • Learned this lesson recently and have been so much more productive. I like to write things down.

    My work day always consists of slightly different tasks but if I write out in advance what I am going to do in a detailed way, I will actually do it. This is part of how I get a ‘routine’ in an otherwise difficult setting. Writing down time frames (like you say about when you do flash cards, podcasts, etc) is helpful in this, too.